India and the West
By: Sen, Amartya,
New Republic, 00286583, 6/7/1993, Vol. 208, Issue 23
Our distortions and their consequences
In a letter to his mother, dated January 9, 1913, E. M. Forster describes his experience of climbing the minaret of a mosque in Banaras, accompanied by a train of local children. When they came down, they asked for bakshis, or tips, "reprimanding each other for their bad breeding as they did so." Forster reports the negotiations thus:
To the boy who had helped me not to bump my head I gave one
anna. He said it was little. I said it was enough and he
agreed. The other boy had carried Murray and so I gave him
two, but he too said it was little…. I asked his
name. He answered "Baldeo." I told him that was my servant's
name too, and he was so struck that he forgot about the money
and engaged in social talk. At the end he said, "Presence, two
annas are not much, can I have four?" "O Baldeo, two are
plenty." "Plenty, did you say? O very well," and he went
like a dear.
Not all international encounters go as smoothly as that. What is chiefly at work in this report is Forster's inclination, of which there is plenty of other evidence, to like what he sees in India (except, of course, the British). Yet the experiences that he describes and summarizes can be interpreted and seen quite differently. Thus, in recounting what are, at one level, rather similar experiences in India, John King Fairbank, the great American expert on China (and generally known to be a kind person), assesses the situation very differently. "One never disputes a fee with them; they all salute and take it…. With Chinese coolies … if you pay too much, they try for more, if not enough, they protest vigorously." When at last Fairbank returns to China from India, he is happy to confirm that the Chinese "are vigorous and smiling, the greatest contrast to the lassitude and repression of the Indians." Fairbank retains the memory of pliant Indians as "timorous cowering creatures, too delicate to fight like the Chinese."
The point in question is not whether Forster's and Fairbank's experiences of Indian docility in this type of money-making are typical now, or were typical when they made their respective observations. Nor am I particularly concerned with the contrast between Chinese and Indian traits. The relevant issue here is the disparate perceptions of essentially similar sequences of events by two observers with different backgrounds and predispositions.
Dissimilarity of perceptions has been an important characteristic of Western understanding of India, and several different and competing conceptions of that large and complex culture have been influential in the West. The diversity is of interest on its own, but its importance is much enhanced by the impact that the Western conceptions have on the self-perceptions of the Indians themselves. This interrelationship is partly the result of India's colonial history, but the influence of foreign interpretations on the self-perception of indigenous peoples is also a general feature of contemporary cultural interdependence. It applies with particular force to societies that have ended up being more dependent, for historical reasons, on ideas that flourish in the metropolis of the modern world.
The influence of self-perception can be particularly important when a country is in the process of redefining itself. This is the case in India now. The movement to see India more in Hindu religious terms is a cultural correlate of the political developments that have put India in such turmoil in recent years. The interest in cultural understanding is thus intensified by its contemporary political relevance. I shall argue that the diverse interpretations of India in the West have, for a variety of reasons to be discussed, tended to work in the same direction, and have reinforced each other in their impact on the self-perceptions of Indians. And the overall effect of this process has been unfortunately to undermine the more rationalist and less religious parts of Indian intellectual traditions; and this has a direct bearing on what we see in India today.
In his justly famous analysis of the construction of the "Orient" in the Western imagination, Edward Said has written that "the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West." Said explains that his own work "deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency in a particularly influential Western characterization of the Orient." I would argue, however, that unless one chooses to focus on the evolution of a specific conceptual tradition (as Said in effect does), "internal consistency" is precisely what is hard to find in the variety of Western conceptions of, in this instance, India. For there are several fundamentally contrary ideas and images of India, and they have quite distinct roles in the Western understanding of the country, and also in influencing the manner in which Indians see themselves.
Attempts from outside India to understand and to interpret the country's traditions can be put into at least three distinct categories, which I shall call the exoticist, the magisterial and the investigative. The exoticist approach concentrates on the wondrous aspects of India. The focus here is on what is different, what is strange in a country that, as Hegel put it, "has existed for millennia in the imagination of the Europeans." The magisterial approach deals with notions of India as an imperial territory from the point of view of its governors. This outlook assimilates a sense of superiority and guardian hood needed to deal with a country that James Mill defined as "that great scene of British action." This, of course, is primarily a British phenomenon, but a great many British observers did not fall into this category, and some non-British ones did. The investigative approach is the most catholic of all, and covers various attempts to understand Indian culture and tradition from outside, without looking only for the strange and without being weighed down by the magisterial burden.
I begin with the investigative approach. People are interested in other cultures and different lands, and investigations across the boundaries of country and tradition have been vigorously pursued throughout human history. The development of human civilization would have been very different had that not been the case. Of course, the exact motivation for these investigations can vary; curiosity is not the only impulse. Yet the investigations need not be as thoroughly constrained as they are under the exoticist or magisterial straitjackets.
In contemporary theories of history and literature, there is some skepticism as to the possibility of any approach to learning that is innocent of power, or unaffected by the characteristic interests of the observer. To some extent, such skepticism is justified. The motivation for the investigation and the nature of the observations would indeed depend on the role and the position of the observer vis-à-vis the object of investigation. But this conditionality does not have the effect of making all the different observational findings equally arbitrary. There are real lines to be drawn between inferences dominated by rigid preconceptions and those that are not so dominated. The process of learning can accommodate considerable motivational variations without becoming worthless as an epistemic enterprise.
An excellent example of investigative approaches to understanding India can be found in Alberuni's Arabic Ta'rikh al-hind, or History of India, written in the early eleventh century. Alberuni was born in Central Asia in 973 A.D., and first came to India with the marauding troops of Mahmud of Ghazni. He became very involved with India, proceeded to master Sanskrit, studied Indian texts on mathematics, natural sciences, literature, philosophy and religion, conversed with as many experts as he could and also observed social conventions and practices. His book presents a remarkable account of the intellectual traditions and social customs of India at the time.
Alberuni's was almost certainly the most impressive of such investigations, but there are a great many examples of serious Arabic studies of Indian intellectual traditions around that time. Brahmagupta's pioneering Sanskrit treatise on astronomy had been first translated into Arabic in the eighth century (Alberuni retranslated it three centuries later); several works on medicine, science and philosophy had Arabic rendering by the ninth century; and so on. It was through the Arabs, of course, that the Indian decimal system reached Europe, as did Indian writings in mathematics, science and literature in general.
In the concluding chapter of his book, Alberuni describes the motivation of his work this way:
We think now that what we have related in this book will
be sufficient for anyone who wants to converse with the
Hindus, and to discuss with them questions or religion,
science or literature, on the very basis of their
He is particularly aware of the difficulties of achieving an understanding of a foreign land and people, and specifically warns the reader about it:
In all manners and usages. [the Indians] differ from us to such
a degree as to frighten their children with us. with our dress,
and our ways and customs, and as to declare us to be the
devil's breed, and our doings as the very opposite of all that
is good and proper. By the bye, we must confess, in order to
be just, that a similar deprecation of foreigners not only
prevails among us and the Indians, but is common to all
nations toward each other.
While Arab scholarship on India provides plentiful examples of what I am calling the investigative approach, it is not unique in this respect. Quite a lot of early European studies of India must be put in this general category. A good example is the work of the Italian Jesuit Roberto Nobili, who went to south India in the early seventeenth century, and whose remarkable scholarship in Sanskrit and Tamil permitted him to produce quite authoritative books on Indian intellectual discussions, in Latin as well as in Tamil. Another Jesuit, Father Pons from France, produced a grammar of Sanskrit in Latin in the early eighteenth century, and also sent a collection of Indian manuscripts to Europe. (Happily, they did not have to deal with the Bombay customs authorities in those days.)
Still, the real eruption of European interest in India took place a bit later, in direct response to British — rather than Italian or French — scholarship on India. A towering figure in this intellectual transmission was the redoubtable William Jones, the legal scholar and officer of the East India Company, who went to India in 1783 and by the following year had established the Asiatic Society of Bengal, with the active patronage of Warren Hastings. In collaboration with scholars such as Charles Wilkins and Thomas Colebrooke, Jones and the Asiatic Society did a remarkable job in translating a number of Indian classics — religious documents (such as the Bhagavadgītā) as well as legal treatises (particularly, Manusmriti) and literary works (such as Kalidāsā's Sákuntalā).
Jones's ambition was, he explained to a friend, "to know India better than any other European ever knew it," and his own description of his chosen fields of study included the following modest list:
… the Laws of the Hindus and the Mohamedans, Modern
Politics and Geography of Hindustan, Best Mode of Governing
Bengal, Arithmetic and Geometry, and Mixed Sciences of
the Asiaticks, Medicine, Chemistry, Surgery, and Anatomy of
the Indians. Natural Productions of India, Poetry, Rhetoric,
and Morality of Asia, Music of the Eastern Nations,
Trade, Manufacture, Agriculture, and Commerce of India.
One can find many other examples of dedicated scholarship among British officers in the East India Company, and there can be little doubt that the Western perceptions of India were profoundly influenced by such investigations. Western scholarship in Indian studies has continued at a high level right to the present time. Although Europeans (British, French, German, Russian and others) have been more occupied with the subcontinent than Americans have, in recent years there has been more interest in the United States as well, and a community of distinguished scholars with expertise on India has clearly emerged.
I turn now to the second category, the magisterial approach. The task of ruling a foreign country does not go easily with seeing the subjects as equal. It is quite remarkable that the early British administrators in India, even the controversial Hastings, were as respectful of the Indian traditions as in fact they were. The empire was, of course, still in its infancy and was being acquired rather gradually and tentatively (if not quite in a fit of absent-mindedness).
A good example of a magisterial approach to India is the classic book on India written by James Mill, published in 1817, on the strength of which he was appointed as an official of the East India Company. Mill's History of British India played a major role in introducing the British governors of India to a certain characterization of the country. Mill disputed and dismissed practically every claim ever made on behalf of Indian culture. He concluded that it was totally primitive and rude. This diagnosis fitted well with Mill's general position in favor of bringing a rather barbaric nation under the benign and reformist administration of the British empire. Consistent with his beliefs, Mill was also an expansionist in dealing with the remaining independent states in the subcontinent: the obvious policy to pursue, he explained, was "to make war on those states and subdue them."
Mill chastised early British administrators (such as Jones) for having taken "Hindus to be a people of high civilization, while they have in reality made but a few of the earliest steps in the progress to civilization." At the end of a comprehensive attack on all fronts, he came to the conclusion that the Indian civilization was at par with other inferior ones known to Mill — "very nearly the same with that of the Chinese, the Persian and the Arabians," and he also put in this category, for good measure, "subordinate nations, the Japanese, Cochin-Chinese, Siamese, Burmans and even Malays and Tibetans."
How well-informed was Mill about his subject? He wrote his book without ever having visited India. It was also hard for him to "be there authorially" (to use one of Clifford Geertz's concepts), and this was not only because he had not been there personally. He knew no Sanskrit, no Persian and no Arabic; he had practically no knowledge of any of the modern Indian languages; and so his reading of Indian material was most limited. Moreover, there was his inclination to distrust anything stated by native scholars, since they appeared to him to be liars. "Our ancestors," said Mill, "though rough, were sincere; but under the glossing exterior of the Hindu lies a general disposition to deceit and perfidy."
Perhaps some examples of Mill's treatment of particular claims of achievements may be useful to illustrate the nature of his extremely influential approach. The invention of the decimal system with place value and a zero, now used everywhere, as well as the so-called Arabic numerals are generally known to be Indian developments. Alberuni had mentioned them in his eleventh-century book on India, and many European as well as Arab scholars had written on the subject. But Mill dismisses the Indian claim to priority altogether, on the ground that "the invention of numerical characters must have been very ancient" and "whether the signs used by the Hindus are so peculiar as to render it probable that they invented them, or whether it is still more probable that they borrowed them, are questions which, for the purpose of ascertaining their progress in civilization, are not worth resolving." He proceeds then to explain that the Arabic numerals "are really hieroglyphics," and that the claim on behalf of the Indians and the Arabs reflects the confounding of "the origins of ciphers or numerical characters" with "that of hieroglyphic writing." Mill's rather elementary error lies in not knowing what exactly a decimal or place-value system is (or does), but his ill-informed smugness cannot be understood except in terms of his implicit unwillingness to believe that a really sophisticated invention could have been managed by such a primitive people.
Another interesting example is Mill's reaction to Indian astronomy and its prescient argument for a heliocentric view of the planetary system, with a rotating Earth and a model of gravitational attraction. Such a view was proposed by Aryabhata, who was born in 476 A.D., and investigated by, among others, Varahamihira and Brahmagupta in the sixth and seventh centuries. Their works were well-known in the Arab world. Jones had been told about these works in India, and he reported what he learned. But Mill expresses total astonishment at Jones's gullibility. "As evidence of the fond credulity with which the state of society among the Hindus was for a time regarded, I ought to mention the statement of Sir W. Jones, who gravely, and with an air of belief, informs us, that he had heard of a philosopher 'whose work was said to contain a system of the universe, founded on the principle of attraction and the central position of the sun.'" After ridiculing the absurdity of this attribution and commenting on the "pretensions and interests" of Jones's Indian informants, Mill concludes that it was "extremely natural that Sir William Jones, whose pundits had become acquainted with the ideas of European philosophers respecting the system of the universe, should hear from them that those ideas were the contained in their own books."
For the purpose of comparison, it is useful to examine Alberuni's eleventh-century discussion of the same issue, involving heliocentrism and the role of gravitational attraction in Indian science:
Brahmagupta says in another place of the same book: "The
followers of Aryabhata maintain that the Earth is moving and
heaven resting. People have tried to refute them by saying
that, if such were the case, stones and trees would fall from
the earth." But Brahmagupta does not agree with them, and says
that that would not necessarily follow from their theory,
apparently because he thought that all heavy things are attracted
toward the center of the earth.
Alberuni himself proceeded to dispute this heliocentric view, raised a technical question about one of Brahmagupta's mathematical calculations, referred to a different book of his own arguing against heliocentrism and pointed out that the relativist character of movements makes this issue less central than one might first think: "the rotation of the Earth does in no way impair the value of astronomy, as all appearances of an astronomic character can quite as well be explained according to this theory as to the other." Here, as elsewhere, while arguing against an opponent's views, Alberuni tries to present them as clearly as possible. The contrast with Mill could not be sharper.
There are plenty of other examples of "magisterial" readings of India in Mill's history. This had some practical importance, since the book was extremely influential in British administration and widely praised. It was described by Macaulay as "on the whole the greatest historical work which has appeared in our language since that of Gibbon." Macaulay's own approach and inclinations fitted in well with Mill's:
I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic…. I am
quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of
the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them
who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library
was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.
This view of the poverty of Indian intellectual traditions played a major part in educational reform in British India, as was readily seen from the "Minute on Indian Education," written in 1835 by Macaulay himself. (The remark quoted above occurs in that "Minute.") The priorities in Indian education were determined, henceforth, by a different emphasis: by the need, as Macaulay argued, for a class of English-educated Indians who could "be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern."
That policy has indeed had many achievements, but a shared knowledge of Indian classics is not among them. And leaving the classics only for specialists has some rather serious consequences for Indian education. For one thing, it makes the population more vulnerable to fraudulent and sectarian claims about Indian additions. The thoroughly ahistorical and intolerant readings of the nature of "real India" by the newly powerful Hindu extremists, who cite nonexistent records and annals, and confound epic stories with scriptural texts, have been facilitated to some extent by the neglect of serious classical education in modern India.
The impact of the magisterial view of India was not confined only to Britain and India. Modern documents in the same tradition have been influential elsewhere, including in the United States. In a series of long conversations with 181 American intellectuals on India and China, conducted by Harold Isaacs in 1958, it was found that the two most widely read literary sources on India were Rudyard Kipling and Katherine Mayo. Of these, Kipling's writings would be more readily recognized as having something of the "magisterial" approach to them. Mayo was the author of the massively derogatory Mother India, which has been described by Lloyd Rudolph in this way:
First published in 1927, Mother India was written in the
context of official and unofficial British efforts to generate
support in America for British rule in India. It added
contemporary and lurid detail to the image of Hindu India
as irredeemably and hopelessly impoverished, degraded, depraved
and corrupt. Mayo's Mother India echoed not only the view of
men like Alexander Duff, Charles Grant and John Stuart Mill but
also those of Theodore Roosevelt, who glorified in bearing the
white man's burden in Asia and celebrated the accomplishments
Mahatma Gandhi, while describing Mayo's book as "a drain inspector's report," added that every Indian should read it, and seemed to imply, as Ashis Nandy notes, that it is possible "to put her criticism to internal use" (as an over-stern drain inspector's report certainly may be). Gandhi himself was severely attacked in Mayo's book, though given his campaign against caste and untouchability, he might have welcomed even her exaggerations in the depiction of caste inequities. But American reliance on thoroughly distorted products of the "magisterial" approach must surely be detrimental to international understanding. Even though the influence of magisterial readings on American images of India has been somewhat countered in recent years by the political interest in Gandhi's life and ideas, and by the writings of Erik Erikson and John Kenneth Galbraith, it is still hard to break through the barrier of distorted preconceptions about India (as Nathan and Sulochana Glazer have discussed in their recent book, Conflicting Images).
I turn now to the "exoticist" approach to India. Interest in India has often been stimulated by the observation of exotic ideas and views there. Arrian's and Strabo's accounts of Alexander the Great's spirited conversation with various sages, including the naked gymnosophists of northwest India, may or may not be authentic, but ancient Greek literature is full of uncommon happenings and thoughts attributed to India.
Megasthenes' Indika, describing India of the early third century B.C., can claim to be the first outsider's book on India, and it certainly did excite much Greek interest, as can be seen from plentiful references to it, for example, in the writings of Diodorus, Strabo and Arrian. Megasthenes had ample opportunity to observe India; as envoy of Seleucus Nicator to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, he spent nearly a decade, between 302 and 291 B.C., in Pataliputra (the site of modern Patna), the capital city of the Mauryan empire. But his superlatively admiring book is also so full of accounts of fantastic objects and achievements in India that it is hard to be sure what is imagined and what is observed.
There are various other accounts of exotic Indian travels by ancient Greeks. The biography of Apollonius of Tiyana by Flavius Philostratus in the third century A.D. is a good example. Apollonius was most keen on a departure from what he saw around him. In his search for the out of the ordinary, he was, we understand, richly rewarded in India: "I have seen men living upon the earth and not upon it; defended without walls, having nothing and yet possessing all things."
From Alexander listening to the gymnosophists' lectures to contemporary devotees hearing the sermons of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Shri Rajneesh, there is a crowded lineage. Perhaps the most important example of intellectual exoticism related to India can be seen in the European philosophical discussions in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, among the Romantics in particular. The leaders of the Romantic movement, the Schlegel brothers, Schelling and others, were profoundly influenced by rather magnified readings of Indian culture.
From Herder, the critic of the rationalism of European Enlightenment, we get the magnificent news that "the Hindus are the gentlest branch of humanity," and that "moderation and calm, a soft feeling and a silent depth of the soul characterize their work and their pleasure, their morals and mythology, their arts." Frederich Schlegel not only pioneered studies of Indo-European linguistics (later pursued particularly by Max Müller), but also brought India fully into his critique of the contemporary West. While in the West "man himself has almost become a machine" and "cannot sink any deeper," Schlegel recommended learning from the Orient, especially India. He also guaranteed that "the Persian and German languages and cultures, as well as the Greek and the old Roman, may all be traced back to the Indian." To this list, Schopenhauer added the New Testament, which, in contrast to the Old, "must somehow be of Indian origin: this is attested by its completely Indian ethics, which transforms morals into asceticism, its pessimism and its avatar (i.e., the person of Christ)."
Not surprisingly, many of the early enthusiasts were soon disappointed in not finding in Indian thought what they had themselves put there, and many of them went into a phase of denial and criticism. Some of the stalwarts, Schlegel in particular, recanted vigorously. Others, including Hegel, outlined fairly negative views of Indian traditions, along with presenting loud denials of the preeminence of Indian culture — a claim that was of distinctly European origin. When Coleridge asked, "What are these potentates of inmost Ind?" he was really asking a question about Europe, not India.
In addition to veridical weakness, the exoticist approach to India has an inescapable fragility that can be seen again and again. A wonderful thing is imagined about India and sent into a high orbit, and then it is brought crashing down. All this need not be such a tragedy when the act of launching is done by (or with the cooperation of) the putative star. Not many wept, for example, for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when the Beatles stopped lionizing him and left suddenly. When asked by the Maharishi why they were leaving, John Lennon had to say: "You are the cosmic one. You ought to know."
But it is a different matter altogether when the boom and the bust are thrust upon the victim. One of the most discouraging episodes in literary reception occurred early in this century, when Ezra Pound, W. B. Yeats and others led the chorus of adoration of the lyrical spirituality of Rabindranath Tagore's poetry, which was soon followed by thorough disregard or firm denunciation. Tagore was a Bengali poet of tremendous creativity and range (though his poetry does not translate easily, not even the spiritual poems that were so applauded). He was also a great storyteller, novelist and essayist, and he remains a dominant literary Figure in Bangladesh and India. The versatile and innovative writer whom Bengalis know well is not the sermonizing spiritual guru invented in London; nor did he fit any better the caricature of "Stupendranath Begorr" and his family that we find later in Shaw's "A Glimpse of the Domesticity of Franklyn Barnabas."
The different approaches have shaped the understanding of Indian intellectual traditions in the West in quite different ways. The exoticist and magisterial approaches have bemused and befuddled that understanding, even as they have drawn attention to India in the West. The exoticist outbursts bring India into many people's awareness in big tides of bewildered attention, but then they ebb, leaving not much behind. The tides, though, can be hard work, while they last. I remember feeling rather sad for the dejected racist I saw some years ago near the Aldwych station in London, viewing with disgust a thousand posters pasted everywhere carrying pictures of the obese — and the holy — physique of Guru Maharajji, then a great rage in London. Our dedicated racist was busy writing diligently under each of the pictures: "fat wog." In a short while that particular wog would have gone, but I don't doubt that the "disgusted of Aldwych" may have to chalk up "lean wog" under other pictures now.
It might be thought that since the exoticist approaches give credit where it may not be due, and the magisterial approaches withhold credit where it may well be due, the two might neutralize each other. But in fact they have very asymmetrical effects. Magisterial criticisms tend to blast the rationalist and humanist aspects of India with greatest force (this is as true of Mill as of Mayo), whereas exoticist admirations tend to build up the mystical and extra rational aspects with particular care (this has been so from Apollonius of Tyana to the Hare Krishna activists of today). The result of the two taken together is to bias forcefully the understanding of Indian culture away from its rationalist aspects. Indian traditions in mathematics, logic, science, medicine, linguistics or epistemology may be well known to the Western specialist, but they play little part in the general Western understanding of India. Mysticism and exoticism, by contrast, have a more hallowed position in that understanding.
Western perceptions and characterizations of India have considerable influence on the self-perceptions of Indians themselves. This is certainly connected with India's colonial past, and with its continued deference to what is valued in the West. But the relationship is not just a matter of docile submission. It sometimes includes vigorous resistance and protest. Still, even the negative responses make the offending Western conceptions deeply influential in a dialectical way.
The European exoticists' interpretation and praise of India found a large welcoming audience in colonial India, and to some extent it even had a political role in the nationalist movements for independence from Britain. The ecstatic appreciations were quoted again and again, and the negative remarks by the same authors (Herder, Schlegel, Goethe and others) were frequently enough systematically overlooked. In his Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru comments on this phenomenon:
There is a tendency on the part of Indian writers, to which I
have also partly succumbed, to give selected extracts and
quotations from the writings of European scholars in praise of
old Indian literature and philosophy. It would be equally easy,
indeed much easier, to give other extracts giving an exactly
In the process of accepting the exoticist praise, the Indian interpretation of the past has tended to move in the direction of the objects of exoticist praise, focusing more on the mystical and the anti-rationalist. That process was fed also by negative critiques of Indian culture, coming particularly from magisterial views. In responding to those critiques (this was important for Indian nationalism), it was too easy to cite appreciation from other Europeans, and this gave the exoticist championing of the specialties of the East further prominence.
All this has helped to undermine an adequately pluralist understanding of the nature of Indian intellectual traditions within India itself. There is no single Indian tradition. It is a question of balance. While India has inherited from its past a vast religious literature, a wealth of mystical poetry, grand speculation on transcendental issues and so on, there is also a huge and often pioneering literature, stretching over two-and-a-half millennia, on mathematics, logic, epistemology, astronomy, physiology, linguistics, phonetics, economics, political science and psychology, among other subjects concerned with the here and now.
Indeed, even on religious subjects, the only world religion that is firmly agnostic, that is, Buddhism, happens to be of Indian origin; and the atheistic schools of Cārvāka and Lokāyata have generated extensive arguments that have been seriously studied by Indian religious scholars themselves. Thus the fourteenth-century book Sarvadarśansamgraha (Collection of All Philosophies) by Mādhava Ācārya (himself a good Vaishnavite Hindu) devotes its first chapter to a serious presentation of the arguments of the atheistic schools.
What I am disputing is not the importance of mysticism and religious initiatives in India, which are certainly plentifully there, but the overlooking of all the other intellectual activities that are also abundantly present in that thoroughly plural culture. The picture of India overwhelmed by religious preoccupations is a portrait of grave sobriety, but if it were said that India is a country of fun and games in which chess was invented, badminton originated, polo emerged and the ancient Kāmasūtra told people how to have joy in sex, that too would not be an erroneous account, though it would be an unlikely account to be given today.
How does the influence that Western understandings of India have on the self-perceptions of Indians affect the nature of the politics of contemporary India? It would, of course, be absurd to think of Indian politics in primarily exogenous terms, but there are some linkages. First, the nature of exoticist reading has typically had a strongly "Hindu" character. This was present, in a way, even in William Jones's pioneering investigations, except that he was to some extent redressing the relative neglect of Sanskrit classics in the preceding Muslim regimes (even though the version of the Upanishads that Jones first read was the Persian translation prepared by the Moghul prince Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal). The European Romantics tended to identify India with variants of Hindu religious thought. Their impact on Indian perception has been to strengthen that alleged identity of India with Hinduism, making it a little easier for the Hindu political activists of today to argue for a specifically Hindu view of India.
Second, as I suggested earlier, the magisterial dismissals (by Mill, Macaulay and others) of the value of the Sanskrit classics contributed to something of a dissociation of modern Indian education from its classical roots. One of the interesting features of the contemporary revival of Hindu extremism is its utterly ahistorical nature, which permits reinventions of the past to suit the demands of political expediency. The confounding of epic stories with scriptural texts in magnifying the role of Ayodhya in Hindu religious thought is one example. Modern reconstructions of the past would have to be more restrained if there had been more widespread knowledge of the real classical traditions of India.
Third, the newly popular Hindu politics of recent years makes much use of obscurantism, linked to the increasing force of anti-rationalist thought in general. The strengthening of the mystical parts of the Indian traditions at the cost of the rationalist parts owes something, again, to the impact of exoticist praise and magisterial denunciation.
Georges Ifrah, the historian of mathematics, quotes a medieval Arab poet from Baghdad called al-Sabhadi, who said that there were "three things on which the Indian nation prided itself: its method of reckoning, the game of chess and the book titled Kalila wa Dimna [a collection of legends and fables]." This is not altogether a different list from Voltaire's cataloging of the important things to come from India: "our numbers, our backgammon, our chess, our first principles of geometry and the fables which have become our own." These selections would not fit the common Western image of India today. Nor would they fit the way many Indians perceive themselves and their intellectual past. The selective alienation of India from a very substantial part of its own past has been nourished by the asymmetric relation between India and the West And it is the rationalist part of India's tradition that has been most affected by this alienation.
By Amartya Sen
AMARTYA SEN is Lamont University Professor at Harvard University and the author of Inequality Re-examined (Harvard University Press).